Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Another thought on teachers

I've thought a little more about yesterday's post on teaching, and there's another point I don't want to miss. I may have made it before, but I don't think I'll go back and plow through a year's worth of posts to see.

We all want every student to have great teachers at every grade level, in every class. We rarely define "great teacher," many contending that we know one when we see it. But that's reductive and unhelpful. Some want to define "great" as anyone who raises test scores by a certain amount, but that method is fraught with evaluation problems (as I discussed yesterday).

I know I have written before about the problem of making any profession that requires 3,000,000 members have only great ones; it's hard to see how anybody could find that many great anythings, let alone a job so multifaceted and complex as teaching.

But here's another thing: I've gone to school for many years, and I would say I've only had two great teachers. By that, I mean teachers who were inspirational and changed the way I saw my place in the world. I've had a whole lot of good teachers, people who competently stood in front of a classroom and conveyed information, and way too many bad teachers.

I spent a year as a substitute teacher in a nationally-respected high school, and got to see first-hand how disappointing a lot of the teachers were in terms of commitment and subject matter knowledge. One in particular struck me as remarkably poor; she spent all her free periods smoking in the teachers' lounge (back in the days when you could do that), never stayed late, and seemed to have no interest in mathematics at all.

However, a few years ago, I found a web site with teacher evaluations. Out of curiosity, I looked up this teacher, and found quite a bit of praise from her students. Some of them found her clear in teaching and inspirational in tone. Were they wrong? Was I wrong?

No to both questions. Teachers don't just teach in some value-neutral setting, they interact with hundreds of students a year. Every one of those interactions is conditioned by a student's prior experiences, their own maturity, the style of the teaching, and a whole lot of other factors. A teacher with none of the attributes I looked for might well fit another student perfectly. For me, office hours were important, because I often would go to kick around an idea, and I expected a great teacher to be there most of the time (if the schedule called for it). But if you were a student who confined their interaction to class time, other considerations became paramount.

I guarantee it goes the other way as well. Both of my "great teachers" were demanding, made us work hard, and I know that a lot of my fellow students would not have rated them as highly as I did. And neither of these gentlemen ever would have "taught to the test," so, if you were to measure them by either students reached (at that time; I would bet that a lot of the negative students have since come to realize the value those teachers provided) or by incremental test scores, they might well come up short and be forced to leave. (I'm also not at all sure how you measure the value added of a music teacher, which presents a real problem for all of the non-core subject teachers out there.) And, were that true, I might have had no great teachers in my life at all.

(Which brings up another big objection to the test score value-added method of evaluation: It tends to reward teachers who are good at bringing the poor student up to adequate over the teacher who is good at reaching the already-bright. If you have a talent for helping the 80 or 90 get to 100, you will come up far short of the teacher who gets the 10 up to 50. But we need both kinds of teachers, particularly if we want to use our "new schools" to jump-start our new advanced economy - all the 50s in the world aren't going to do much about that, we need the 100 students to be at the top of their game to create the technological future - but this is not the day for me to lament the hideous inadequacy of our gifted education.)

A non-review

I rarely fail to finish a book I've started. I've read people and know people who say that, with all the things there are to read and do in the world, it's practically irresponsible to finish every book one begins, but, perhaps due to some innate stubbornness, I usually plow through pretty much everything I've begun.

But not in the case of David M. Smick's The World Is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy (2008). I got to page 64, said "no more," and put it away in favor of other books. This book is by no means a disaster; Smick, a longtime investment and political consultant, clearly knows his stuff, and the book gushes with erudition and history from one who has, apparently, been on the front lines of the global financial situation for quite a while.

What put me off were two things: the tone of the text, which lurches between "the sky is falling" and "the U.S. better not change anything if it wants to remain dominant"; and the inapplicability of anything here given the meltdown that has occurred since the book was published. If you read this book, you will become convinced that the world financial system is on such a thin edge at all times, that the embedded risk is so high that there is almost no way we'll get through, but all of that has already happened, and I don't need to be convinced.

As you might guess from the title, Smick has written this book as a response to Tom "I love globalization in the morning" Friedman, as he points out that the financial world is not flat (like the goods and services world), but curved. He writes some very dismissive things about the effects of globalization, but seems content to leave that to Tom, as he needs to get on with his non-flat world of finance.

And that fundamental mistake colors the whole thing. We become convinced that finance lies under every other business activity, is the subfloor for all intents and purposes, so how can one be curved and the other flat? Clearly it cannot work, the positioning of a flat world on a curved underworld (I use the term in both senses of the word); all that happens is that the flat world cracks and warps, which is a pretty good description of what is actually happening.

Smick, as well, ignores matters of national interest. Almost every horror-filled scenario he can think up closes with, "The U.S. had better not do anything in the way of taxation or regulation to look unfriendly, or the whole house of cards will come down." In other words, if America fails to keep the highway clear for business to do whatever it feels like doing, the ruination of the world will be on our heads. This is an extreme philosophy to be sure, that we must not impede the right of multinational corporations and other central banks to do whatever they like - in effect, it argues that worldwide financial efficiency must trump all other considerations.

There are other, more minor irritations here. The idea that there was no innovation before 1979, until world financial flows matured enough to fund new technologies, is patently wrong. That the confidence of financial executives somehow inevitably trumps the confidence of "regular people" is insulting in a democracy. That confidence is the driving force of financial markets is frightening if true, misleading if false.

I may go back to this book one day (yes, the old stubbornness again), but I'm in no hurry. I can't recommend you not read it just because I had my fill of it fairly early - it's a readable summary of the last 20 years or so of international finance. But I found it an unpleasant read, wondering as I did how any rational person could believe that the system wasn't cruisin' for a bruisin'. The probability that we could have avoided the problems we're having now seems asymptotically close to 0; if Smick saw it so clearly, so should everyone else, which indicates someone needs to fix it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Oh, it's that simple

Yglesias is writing about education again. Anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows that I read Yglesias and admire his writing and thinking...periodically. He seems to make sense to me on foreign policy, he offers a mixed bag on transportation (though I grant it may sometimes be that he's underexplaining in the blog format), but I have found his writing on education to be more miss than hit.

He's taking requests again, posts in which he invites readers to offer topics on which he can comment, which is a pretty sweet way to garner blog ideas (some of us have to think them up on our own). Today he answers a question from a reader who wonders why the answer to every education problem is to "find better teachers." The reader is curious as to why education is the only area in which that's the solution, citing a desire to see better soldiers and doctors and nurses.

Yglesias answers that the quality of our military has been a concern, that there was a concerted effort to rebuild in the wake of the Vietnam War, and that we have accomplished that (and fought off any efforts to reinstate the draft, which would lead to lower professionalism). He goes on to say that all public services should be concerned about quality:
Some cities, for example, have trouble offering police officers salaries that are as high as what’s offered in neighboring suburbs. This tends to lead to problems with the quality of the staff available to urban police departments which, in turn, makes it more difficult to keep crime under control.
This is, of course, true, but the dilemma comes from the reality that not every municipality can pay above-average salaries. Also, that he uses "should" indicates that he's not really answering the question.

Then, finally, he comes to education, and he jumps on a familiar sandbox: since we have evidence that teachers who go the non-traditional route for becoming certified do as well as teachers who go through the usual process, we should:
(a) relax the preemptive screening so as to make it easier for anyone with a college degree to get into the classroom, (b) make the tenure decision more strictly tied to student achievement, and then (c) take advantage whatever increase in your potential labor force step (a) has given you to make it possible to in step (b) dump the bottom X% of the worst-performing teachers. To all of this I would be strongly inclined to add (d) start paying people more to further increase the size of the labor pool and make step (c) all the more effective.
To even know where to begin parsing out the problematic logic from all this is difficult, so I will make no effort at completeness. But let's look at (a).

There is a big difference between those teachers who have followed a non-traditional route and "anyone with a college degree." The former tend to have actual experience, so they understand the subject matter deeply, plus they have almost certainly mentored and taught younger employees. That, added to their clear motivation, makes it highly unlikely they would be worse than the great mass of existing teachers.

As for (b), I am certainly in favor of changing the tenure rules for our teachers, because they ask laughably little of people in return for a massive reward. But tying it to student achievement requires a near-perfect evaluation function, and we are a long way from having that. We can go with the simplistic, the results of standardized tests, but I can guarantee that we won't eliminate errors. It is a myth to say that we have the ability to measure a teacher's competence in any but a crude way; if we can't, then we are far over-promising when we claim that we will inevitably upgrade the profession.

I'm not arguing in support of the current system, it certainly has its problems, but we need to be quite wary about moving to a system in which we throw open the doors and let results sort out the winners and losers. It's easy, it's attractive, and there are obviously people who believe we can optimize the outcomes of 3,000,000 teachers in doing so.

But let's remember the bad results of this experiment. We're not talking about a mediocre accountant sneaking through the process, leading to a sloppy audit. We're talking about putting the education of numerous children in the hands of someone who's done nothing more than to earn a B.A. Sometimes that's going to work great, sometimes it won't, but we know that you can't just burn a year or two for a kid, chalk it up to the luck of the draw, and make it up later.

Maybe changes do need to be made. Maybe we need to make something like the existing process even harder, attempt to weed out the bad apples even earlier. But I cannot believe that we're just going to hand over a classroom to anyone with a pulse for two or three years and "see how it goes." All we will likely prove is that, yes, our schools can be worse than they are now.

Books of 2008

As promised, here is my only year-end list. I'll leave it to others to collect the biggest entertainment stories of the year, or the stupidest things Republicans said, or the best and worst movies - I'll just talk about books I've read and reviewed here.

Oddly enough, I have 53 reviews out there, a bit over one a week, which means it was an unusual year; probably a little too much reading, too few other activities. Looking at the categories, it was certainly a mixed bag; that's what comes from letting one's reading be influenced mainly by going to the "New Books" shelves in the library. There are 13 books listed as politics, 12 as fiction, and 6 as sports (though there are some specific sports that I didn't classify as "sports"). Otherwise, no topic came up very often, which may indicate an unfocused set of interests, or a chaotic classification scheme.

My method for developing the following was simple, I went through the list of reviews and determined whether the book was Important, Entertaining, Disappointing, or Uninteresting. Just as the reviews were subjective, so too were these classifications, and the vast majority fell into none of these - they were, in general, competent and good, not standouts for me. Here goes.

The Most Entertaining (these are books I simply enjoyed, whether fiction or non-):
4) A TV Guide to Life (review from 12/21)
Purports to be a method of applying lessons from television shows to life, intelligently abandons this for some funny (and, at times, trenchant) observations about the idiot box.
3) Hunter's Moon (1/22)
Atmospheric mystery set in the North Woods.
2) Harlan Ellison's Watching (11/20)
Dated movie reviews might seem uninteresting, but Ellison's passion and bite makes them worth reading 20 - 40 years after the fact, plus you get to step inside the psyche of this fascinating man.
1) Red Mandarin Dress (4/7)
Passable mystery set in mid-90s Shanghai, but truly fascinating in its look at China in transition as seen through one of the great fictional characters, Inspector Chen.

The Most Uninteresting (books that were kind of boring):
5) Four-Letter Words (10/26)
Written to capitalize on the documentary Wordplay, there simply wasn't enough substance here to be of interest, and the long lists of crossword-ese are boring to anyone who doesn't already know them (and boring to anyone who does).
4) Michelangelo's Notebook (1/16)
3) The Lucifer Gospel (1/17)
The DaVinci Code made a lot of money, but was pretty bad; these two knock-offs weren't as involving.
2) One World (3/5)
Philosopher Peter Singer's solution to globalization: government of the world.
1) When you ride alone you still ride with bin Laden (2/16)
Any book that gives it all up in the title has problems; if only Bill Maher was as funny as he thinks he is.

The Most Disappointing (I'm going to subdivide this category, into the books that frustrated my expectations, and the books that make me question the wisdom of the publishing industry):
I Was Hoping for More:
4) Book of the Dead (2/18)
One keeps hoping that Patricia Cornwell will pull it together and get the magic of the Scarpetta series back, and each entry gets worse.
3) America the Principled (2/8)
As fine an explanation of the problems that face America as you're going to find, undercut by a long list of completely preposterous "solutions."
2) The Post-American World (11/14)
Fareed Zakaria's explication of the new world we're making; well-written and well-researched, but I found nothing new here. After reading and listening to Zakaria, I was expecting something important, and it was just...OK.
1) The Black Swan (11/25)
An important but relatively ineffective main point, wrapped in a long narrative of self-aggrandizement and self-indulgence. A book that should have been important, but ended up irritating.

Why Were These Published?:
3) Discover Your Inner Economist (1/14)
Tyler Cowen's stab at the success of Freakonomics, providing very little in the way of understanding of what economists do and what insights they might provide.
2) Stat One (3/11)
The baseball equivalent of a physics textbook that ignores Newton and Einstein, it presents a non-novel way of evaluating performance and makes the mistake of falling in love with itself.
1) Patriotic Grace (12/4)
Peggy Noonan's self-consciously "important" book, seemingly dashed off as a stream of consciousness narrative. There is no real attempt here to deal with the world as it exists, and the solution doesn't go beyond the title.

The Most Important:
10) Bill of Wrongs (1/28)
The final book of Molly Ivins, chronicling the ways in which the Bush administration has subverted the Bill of Rights.
9) The Rest Is Noise (12/15)
A selective look at 20th century classical music, exhaustively researched and well-written.
8) Free World (3/20)
An Englishman's look at how America should position itself versus the rest of the world, persuasively expressed from a perspective we don't often see.
7) Escaping Plato's Cave (2/6)
Mort Rosenblum is a real reporter, something of the anti-Friedman, who looks at how America is viewed by the rest of the world - and the results aren't pretty. And our cluelessness hasn't been properly exposed by his fellow journalists.
6) The Second Civil War (2/27)
A look at partisanship, informed by history. The conclusions and suggestions are unremarkable, but the reporting is top-notch.
5) The World Is Flat (3/3)
Tom Friedman's tribute to the wonders of globalization, tremendously flawed. It's this high on the list because it has been hugely influential, providing as it does a roadmap to the brave new world. Much of it is laughably bad.
4) A Problem From Hell (4/1)
Samantha Power's history of genocide, a basis for any thinking on the subject. It raises real questions about the Western world's dealings with this issue.
3) High Wire (12/3)
Impeccable reporting on the extent to which the powerful have shifted risk to the rest of us. The questions raised here have to be answered if we are to come through the current crisis at anywhere close to the level we think we went in.
2) The Limits of Power (12/29)
A compelling theory of foreign policy; ultimately depressing in its conclusion that we are unlikely to change anything substantive, and our way of life will be adversely affected.
1) Supercapitalism (2/19)
Robert Reich's treatise on the extent to which America has allowed capitalism to hold sway over democracy. No action that has been taken in the current crisis will allow you to think anything has changed, and that is profoundly troubling.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Review - The Limits of Power

All things considered, the theory that explains the largest number of phenomena is going to be the most compelling. It still needs to be tested against the usual values of truth and valid implication, but, if it is reasonably competent, it has to at the very least be in the ballgame. I've talked about my problems with economics as a science (my usual disclaimer: it's doing some good things, but it is in no way a mature discipline yet), and this is a problem. Many economic papers or theories are so narrowly defined that they are abstracted away from anything close to the real world.

I don't write too much about foreign policy here, because, first, I don't really have an overarching theory that covers the world; every situation seems to have its own set of rules, and it's dangerous to generalize, and second, I don't have any particular knowledge about any particular country or area. So I'm left at the intersection of common sense and the contributions of experts.

All this is preface to an admission that I don't know for certain that Andrew Bacevich, professor and retired Army colonel, is an authority, someone I should trust for an overarching theory of America's role in the world. So I'm left to weigh his arguments based on what I do know and what makes sense, and, on those points, his book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008) is a sobering dose of truth to which we had better pay attention.

For Bacevich integrates our current economic climate with our past and present in foreign policy, and does so convincingly enough that LOP needs to be put on the table as we move forward. This short book, 182 pages, is thick with history and insights, and is profoundly pessimistic that we will reach the heights to which we aspire as a nation, arguing that our goals have been mistaken, our means flawed, and our leaders incapable of accomplishing what they promise (assuming that's what they really want).

I could write a lengthy detailed review here, but Bill Moyers has already done a lot of the work for me. He conducted an interview with Bacevich back in August (transcript here) that summarizes the book more concisely than I would be able to, and I suggest you read through that. I will, thus, pick and choose from the book more than I normally would.

One challenge presented to anyone who tries to argue that the United States is in a passel of trouble is, "We've been through rough times before, and we flourished, we overcame, so who says anything's different now?" The obvious rejoinder, that Rome thought it was going to overcome all obstacles until, oh my, it didn't, always falls on deaf ears. One is left to explicate the ways in which our neglect has made this time far more precarious. In many respects, the whole of LOP is a rejoinder, a response to those who would urge staying the course under the false assumption that history inevitably repeats.

LOP is built on three pillars: that we are suffering a "crisis of profligacy," in which our inability to prioritize domestically has put us in a heretofore unthought-of vulnerable position; a "political crisis," the salient feature of which is an unchecked executive branch of remarkable incompetence; and a "military crisis," in which the decisions of our military leaders have proven to be incapable of dealing with the true challenges we face.

Perhaps the key tenet of the book is the idea that America has been building, in effect, a soft empire. Even globalization is a euphemism for that empire, in which the rest of the world exists to play its role in the American narrative. And, always, standing behind that is the American military machine, providing the muscle to back up that view of the world. This ties directly into the notion of American Exceptionalism, the idea that we play a unique role in the history and the present of the world, that our values are so special that they should be imposed on everyone else, no matter the cost.

Our whole "defense" apparatus is not so much about defending our borders, but about projecting our power out into the world. Shielded by that power, we are freed from having to look at other nations or entities in clear light; we call Saddam and bin Laden "evil" without having to understand their motivations.

Bacevich contrasts a desire for realism and humility (the cornerstones of Reinhold Niebuhr) with their opposites, hubris and sanctimony, respectively. Anyone who sat through Condoleezza Rice's Meet the Press appearance last week saw that in action:
To say that those people deserve the same, the same life that we have, the same freedoms that we have, that seems to me, humble.
Humility or sanctimony?

The crux of the argument is that we're caught up in a self-defeating relationship between expansion, abundance, and freedom. Bacevich's "abundance" is what I have in the past termed "luxury," but the result is the same. We have indulged ourselves in a lot of things that are unnecessary, heedless of the cost it's incurred on other people and on our own future generations. Not that all abundance is bad - in many respects, it paved the way for greater freedoms for more people (only in an expanding economy could we have extended rights to women and African-Americans) - but much of it was earned only because we could back it up with a strong dominating presence in the world.

However, this cycle is now coming up against hard limits; actually, it has been for 25 years or more. That portion of our prosperity that has come from cheap oil has been somewhat illusory, as it has required our military strength to enforce our access, and the cost has been an increasing dependence on other nations. Jimmy Carter saw this, and made the mistake of telling the American people, and he was swept away by the rosy optimism of Reagan.

Now things are different:
Expansionism squanders American wealth and power, while putting freedom at risk....Rather than confronting this reality head-on, American grand strategy since the era of Ronald Reagan, and especially throughout the era of George W. Bush, has been characterized by attempts to wish reality away. Policy makers have been engaged in a de facto Ponzi scheme intended to extend indefinitely the American line of credit.
One might think that one political tradition or another might work to counteract this trend, but Bacevich is not optimistic. Congress has essentially ceded all power to the imperial presidency, leaving us without an important check on the power of one office. Bush has made an important contribution, by taking the ideas to such an extreme that he has laid bare their "defects and utter perversity." In this telling, the Bush Doctrine is not so much revolutionary as an explicit statement of business as usual.

The vast security and intelligence apparatus is completely dysfunctional, incapable of providing any real protection to the American people. Periodic reorganizations have served only to create larger and more expensive fiefdoms, creating fund-attracting power centers to no effect.

Bacevich credits Paul Nitze with creating the blueprint for all that has come since he wrote NSC 68 back in 1950. In that document, State Department employee Nitze formulated the strategy that has governed our dealings ever since. He presented three strategies for containing the threat posed by Soviet communism: isolationism, preventive war, or a massive increase in American power, represented by huge spending on the tools of destruction. Unsurprisingly, we picked the third, and that cast the die that has remained operative through the days of Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld.

But what is most important to this strategy is that every threat is the big one, the existential threat that will wipe us off the planet if we don't act swiftly and decisively. And so, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq.

For this strategy to work, we would have to possess overwhelming force applied brilliantly, both in strategy and tactics. And Bacevich contends that we've really come apart here, that our military leaders have been unable to rise to the occasion. Three illusions governed this failure: that we had managed to change the nature of war, that it could be precise and targeted and capable of focused destruction; that civilian leaders and the military had forged a new understanding of goals that would target vital national interests; and that American society was now fully on board with whatever the military might do. None of these has proven to be true, as we've seen in Iraq.

Bacevich notes that we have seen the folly of these assumptions, but that our corrections (our focus must be not on destruction, but on nation-building; our military must be given primary responsibility; we will integrate the military into society by reinstituting the draft) are ultimately unworkable, ineffective, and impossible.

There are four lessons we must learn, however, and they are the ones that must inform our judgment going forward.
  1. War is and always will be chaos, and will forever be a combination of planning and reaction. We did not begin to understand the effect that IEDs would have in Iraq, and any war will always bring things like this.
  2. Force is not the solution to every problem. "Shock and awe" may topple statues and dictators, but they don't bring democracy to a huge region or allow us to control the natural resources of it.
  3. Preventive war is "just plain stupid." It is hard to support morally; even if we can get by that, it cannot possibly eliminate all threats.
  4. Strategy has become hopelessly muddled; civilian leaders confuse it with ideology, military leaders with operations.
Bacevich harbors little hope that a new president will bring about fundamental change, so ingrained is the idea that America plays a unique role in the world and needs to project that everywhere. As long as we retain the arrogance that allows us to believe that our system needs to be recreated everywhere, and that we deserve to live exactly as we wish, awash in material goods, we are destined to continue our record of failure, and that will ultimately impoverish us. We have, paradoxically, attempted to impose our will on the world and have ended up dependent on others, for oil, for goods, for money.

What we should do is to pursue a policy of containment, coupled with a concerted effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons and reverse climate change, both of which actually are existential threats. These problems, difficult as they are, are unlikely to prove more difficult than "transforming the Greater Middle East, which requires changing the way a billion or more Muslims think."

Ultimately, Bacevich is not positive about our chance to make the changes we need to. He doesn't believe that Americans will accept the limits of power, that we will go on beating our heads against the same walls. This important book closes with the depressing:
"To the end of history," [Niebuhr] once wrote, "social orders will probably destroy themselves in the effort to prove that they are indestructible." Clinging doggedly to the conviction that the rules to which other nations must submit don't apply, Americans appear determined to affirm Niebuhr's axiom of willful self-destruction.
[For another take on this book, see this from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who finds a way to link this book to "Use Me" by the great Bill Withers, which even he admits is reaching, but it's still worth checking out.]

No middle ground

Not to belabor the Buschmann ground again (read here and here if you don't know what I'm talking about), but there is another issue that I've neglected before. In any of the stories that have been swirling around this blog on this issue, whether it be an international businessman who is now selling suits and carrying boxes, or the erstwhile pizza delivery guy who is now a professional tech doc specialist but has no problem returning to pizzas if that's how it goes, or the people I know who have been forced to take subsistence jobs to replace their engineering or development careers, we consistently fail to wonder why so many people end up with these choices.

What I mean is that we pretty much accept the idea that the engineer whom the market has cast aside will be working at a sandwich shop or a Best Buy. We rarely talk about the possibility of transferable skills, that the engineer through years of rigorous study and effort might be qualified for something similar.

I see this in my profession of software development all the time. If I were hiring, I'd rather hire someone with 20 years of experience, even if he had never worked with the specific technology, than the kid with a couple of years gained solely in that technology. (Understand I'm not being absolute here; there are plenty of dullards who've somehow lumped through a 20-year career without doing anything of note, and plenty of bright eager young people who are worth their weight in gold. I'm talking about a comparison of two average people in the two groups.) But I'm not hiring, and my attitude is most definitely not the dominant one.

Even more broadly, as a developer, I've done every job in the software lifecycle, so I know, for example, that I am a great tester. I've worked with a lot of the automated tools, and I seem to have the kind of curiosity and thoroughness that are the hallmarks of fine testers. Yet, I can't get a job as a software tester, because I've never had that exact title, I haven't lived and breathed the testing lifestyle (or whatever people are looking for).

I'll survive, but it's indicative of something larger. When our economy was on the rise, there was so much demand for so many different jobs that intense specialization became the rule, even when it wasn't appropriate. Now we have C programmers, and C++ programmers, and Java programmers, and so forth, and each exists in his or her own employment silo. That a good C++ programmer might be superior at coding Java than a mediocre Java programmer isn't a problem, not as long as a superior Java programmer will come down the road soon, and there is a near-infinite supply of C++ jobs anyway.

But things are different now. For various reasons, in various fields, opportunities are far harder to come by. So, if the C++ market dries up (or large corporate auditing, or Wall Street quant modeling, or radiology), the only option left for even the best performer is to take a generic job. No one in corporate hiring (if any of those people are left) is going to "take a chance" on even the best C++ person if the job listing calls for Java.

The job seeker is left with some pretty noxious options, most of which involve fudging the resume. If that doesn't work, it's off to the warehouse with you.

This has huge implications for education and career development. There used to be a focus on creating the "educated man," on giving all graduates a common base of knowledge that they could apply to whatever profession came their way. There were specific specialties that needed advanced training, but the vast majority were expected to be generalists, getting more specific as their careers progressed.

Now we have high school students who are required to declare a major, and, even in schools without this requirement, there is societal pressure to figure out what "you're going to do with your life." This is why we shouldn't be surprised that our young people seem so stupid. There is no reason for the person on the investment banking track to know where Madagascar is; that's just mental space that is better spent on collateralized debentures.

We're all duly appalled at Leno's Jaywalking features, in which some telegenic kindergarten teacher demonstrates that she doesn't know who the first president was, but her job is teaching letter recognition and monitoring naptime; George Washington doesn't come up a lot in her duties. Articles like this one, which lament Americans' ignorance of the particulars of the current status of Bethlehem, are ultimately pointless; it might be nice if people knew the demographics of Christ's birthplace, but it is hardly essential knowledge (and, realistically, how many people could describe the religious makeup of their current towns?).

As for what will happen next, I don't know. Workers will have to somehow become more generalist, or they'll be subject to the feast-or-famine workplace we are developing now. But the other side will have to change, companies will have to spend the time to figure out what person will fit the job best, even if the credentials aren't an exact match...but they won't.

Why not? Because they don't have to. XYZ Corp can't find 25 Java programmers with exactly 2-1/2 years experience, who each have training in some obscure library? No problem, some guy who works out of a post office box will offer up his 25 people with exactly that experience (then call his brother-in-law back in Bangalore and tell him to staff up and find some online training guides).

What this does is create even more risk for the person trying to build a career. You have to be fortunate enough to pick some specialty that "can't be outsourced," and you better make yourself absolutely indispensable within that specialty. Retraining, the great answer to every question, will only allow you to start over at the bottom. Unless you're really lucky, your income will lurch up and down until you hit a certain age, at which point it's pretty much whatever you can scrape out of the marketplace. There will be no middle ground.

This post is already long enough, so I'll let the reader work out the implications for society. (By the way, I understand that there are some people who find what I've outlined above as desirable, a commendable way to regularly reorder things to approach an optimum condition. To them, those who value the creative aspects of chaos over the institutions that one can build on stability, then it's all good and you should be happy.) The changes will be profound.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Nutcracker

I have admitted before that I am absolutely unqualified to comment on dance.  My connections to the art are a roughly 10-year subscription to the Joffrey Ballet, and that I often do a flexibility workout taken from the New York City Ballet Workout book (which I recommend highly; I gather there are a couple of DVDs as well, I can't comment on them).  So I have a strange relationship with dance; I have almost no ability to compare one dancer or company with another, but I do know what a fondu or an arabesque is.

All that said, this is my blog, so I can make a comment without knowing much of anything.  I've seen the Joffrey production of The Nutcracker quite a few times, and, the other night, I watched the current PBS show with the San Francisco Ballet.  From this limited perspective, I enjoyed the PBS show, but not anywhere near as much as did the commenters at the web site.  I recognize the danger here, comparing something on TV I've seen once to something I've seen live 10 or so times (dance really does suffer when it's seen on the screen, as the depth gets flattened almost intolerably).

One thing I have noticed is that there is far more of a star hierarchy at most ballet companies than there is at the Joffrey.  Whether San Francisco or ABT, there seems to be a bewildering array of titles, principal, soloist, corps, and so forth, whereas the Joffrey is more nominally egalitarian.  Obviously there are stars, like the recently departed and much missed Maia Wilkins, but a dancer who is a flower in The Nutcracker might show up in the spring program as the star of a dance.  It's my impression that we don't see that in most other companies.  The result: the corps at the Joffrey is of far higher quality.  The wife and I saw ABT dance Swan Lake a few years ago, and I was amazed at the lack of unison in the corps, something you almost never see with the Joffrey.

The same was true in the SF Ballet Nutcracker, anything with an ensemble was shaky, with none of the precision I've come to expect.  In the minor roles there are also some problems; for example, one of the dancers in the Arabian coffee piece seemed to have major problems with landing relatively simple jumps.  And I have to believe that affects the choreography.  Gerald Arpino (who, sadly, we lost this year) created a couple of the ensemble dances in Robert Joffrey's Nutcracker, most notably the Waltz of the Flowers, which is a wondrous piece with non-stop movement and stagecraft.  In comparison, the San Francisco version is woeful indeed, with long solo turns by the Sugar Plum Fairy alternating with the aforementioned questionable ensemble work.  I wonder if Arpino knew that he would have a strong ensemble, so the Waltz became a non-star turn, while the SF choreographer knew he had to work around a less-outstanding corps.

To continue with the negative comparisons, the second acts are quite different in staging.  In the Joffrey version, the stage is full, with a great density of people and movement.  The SF version, in contrast, is far more stark, with all the business focused on whoever's dancing at the moment - the rest of the vast stage is empty.  Maybe that's a matter of taste.  If your major concern is a focus on the principals, you might not want a lot of stage business.  Personally, I prefer the swirl of activity, the sense of continuity that comes from, for example, having Clara onstage at all times observing what is, after all, supposed to be her dream.

Look, I don't want to be overly negative here.  I'm fortunate in that I live close enough to see the Joffrey production, and many don't have that opportunity.  The San Francisco version is lovely, and there is some superior individual dancing (this Nutcracker Prince guy is very good, though he looks distractingly like Justin Long, Mac from the PC vs. Mac commercials).  If you like The Nutcracker, this is a fine presentation, well worth your time at the holidays.

Off-the-books books

I'm planning a post later this week on the books I've reviewed this year, kind of a year-end wrapup with biggest disappointments, most important, etc., but I thought I'd take a moment to mention a couple of reading projects that I didn't review, mainly because I didn't have anything particularly cogent to contribute.

First, I read through all of the Harry Potter books, and, while hardly life-transforming, they were pretty darned enjoyable. I see the attraction that they hold for the young people. Rowling creates vivid characters and situations, and the building seriousness over the course of the series is downright ominous. You really do care what happens to Harry, Hermione, and Ron, and they are embedded in a fascinating world (though the separation between the world of the mortal Muggles and the wizards seems a tad contrived).

Second, the series of mysteries featuring Dave Robicheaux by James Lee Burke. I shied away from these for the longest time, despite outstanding reviews, because of a blind spot I have: I'm not big on local color or atmosphere. And for these books, set in and around New Orleans, well, I've read too many books set in that town to believe this series wasn't going to be far too long on gumbo and Bourbon Street.

And that's not what the books are about at all. There is local color galore, but it grows organically out of the life of the Robicheaux character. The plots are dense and interesting, and describe an arc of a man's life who is dismayed at the changes in the world around him.

Another thing I find refreshing is that the books don't center on the young. There is not the automatic presumption that a 25-year-old is necessarily more interesting than a 60-year-old, as is true in so many novels. Robicheaux himself starts in the first book at around 48, and gets older realistically.

So I would recommend both series, unless you have no stomach for fantasy, in which case you might be bored with the Potter oeuvre. But definitely get to know Dave Robicheaux.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Our Ponzi world

I read David Seaton's blog every so often. He is an expatriate, living in Spain, who writes about once a day, and he certainly has an interesting view of the United States from his vantage point across the sea. In a post he wrote on Monday, he steps well back from the immediate crisis, and comments on something that I have contended - that, even after we get through the current situation, we are likely to be poorer, with fewer options, than we had before.

He quotes a Spanish friend who contends:
At the bottom of it, he said, was the enormous increase in productivity brought on by information technologies. We simply produce much more than we can possibly consume: we need lots of consumers and much fewer workers.

How are underemployed people supposed to buy anything? On credit. Something has to give, has given. I think he's right.
Science fiction anticipated this situation, as there have been any number of books that describe a world in which robots and computers take up much of the work that humans used to do. The normal arc of the story is that we live in a seeming utopia, where population density is low and humans are free to pursue various pleasures. Then, of course, something happens to shake up the status quo, and the once-happy humans confront the essential emptiness of their lives. Rarely, however, do these stories ever discuss how we actually made that transition to the utopia in the first place.

Seaton continues:
With lower costs and more technology, profits rise and much of this gain is reinvested in more productivity-raising technology, which makes more skills and the people who have them redundant. This means, perversely, that more profits usually lead to less jobs or much poorer jobs. This paradigm, which until recently only held true for the poorly educated, is now reaching the ranks of university graduates. Now, with digital technology, even high intellectual output tasks can be outsourced to where people with postgraduate degrees can be hired for the same cost per hour as high school graduates in a developed country.

Result: As more money is invested in raising productivity, fewer and fewer people can produce more and more for a market glutted with products that fewer and fewer people can afford to buy without going into debt.

Salaries don't rise because most workers are not really needed that badly and are easy to replace if they go on strike, complain or even report in sick.. and thus they have no bargaining power.
And this is what we're beginning to see. Some Americans, those who control the capital or those ever-fewer who are involved in the productivity-enhancing activities, continue to do just fine, but it's hard to see how the system is working for the greater number of people.

More from Seaton:
[A] future with poorer paying jobs, less horizon, more need of credit to participate, with less chance of ever paying back the debts incurred.

To make underpaid workers buy things that objectively they don't need, an entire industry (marketing) exists to make them dissatisfied with what they already have. Perversely, unhappiness becomes a social good in such an economic arrangement. A thrifty person, content with his lot, who for thousands of years was seen, in all traditions, as a wise and sensible man; in this contemporary situation is seen as a public enemy to be "stimulated".

In a sense our entire "civilization" is sort of a universal "Ponzi scheme". If the wheel stops even for a moment it all comes tumbling down.
I actually tend to be less pessimistic than Seaton in the normal course of things. That is, perhaps, because I find it hard to buy into the "big-collapse" theory (I've always felt that James Howard Kunstler, whom I admire greatly, overstates a similar case, in that it's hard to turn the aircraft carrier as quickly as his predictions for our decline would imply).

However, it's also difficult for me not to concede that the facts as they are today seem to fit with Seaton's conclusions. We do have economists who question why the overall economy is not growing at the rate that their productivity numbers would indicate. It does seem bizarre that, debt clearly being one of the proximate causes of our current woes, we are being told that it's vital to go out and spend like drunken sailors. I would like to think that there's some kind of balance wheel that swings into action to counter the "tumbling," but I'm not sure what that mechanism is.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The specific and the general

I would be remiss if I didn't follow up on the post I wrote about the Chicago Tribune story that used one Karl Buschmann as an example of how someone with a great deal of education finds himself working very hard to make ends meet. Ron May, who I wrote about here, left a comment with some specific observations about Mr. Buschmann, a man he knows slightly. The impression I get from Mr. May's comments is that Mr. Buschmann doesn't fit the mold of the "hale fellow well met," and that his experience may be somewhat limited in a way that might curtail his current opportunities.

I don't know Mr. Buschmann, of course, and whatever twists and turns he may have experienced on the way to his current situation are unknown to me. However, I didn't pick him as the subject of a feature story, the eighth (or so, who knows today) largest newspaper in the country did. Is he the exemplar of a trend, or an outlier? Don't know.

What I do know is that it is a trend. I haven't cleared the relating of some stories with the people involved, so I can't be too specific, but I know quite a few people who are in similar straits as Mr. Buschmann. In general, these are people who were well-respected in their positions, who performed well, who had credentials and experience, and are in no way "odd ducks." They may not have been tireless self-promoters, but they certainly added value to their organizations - and they're now underemployed, forced to take jobs outside of their fields of proven expertise.

Some can argue that that's just the way the cookie crumbles, and maybe it is. Maybe these are simply people who got caught up by a trend external to themselves, and they need to understand that and accept that. And, you know what, they've done just that. They may still be looking for work in their chosen fields, but they're also doing what they have to.

Perhaps this country doesn't need as many software engineers and electrical engineers and project managers as it used to, no matter what the "experts" say. But that is the crux of the matter, isn't it?

Those who choose to read this blog as a tribute to inefficiency or an immature desire to the world as it can never again be, I would suggest that they have not read it at all closely. What I have said is that there are costs to the business-friendly policies we've adopted, costs that are being increasingly borne by people who are already exposed to a great deal of risk. I have written that there are risks to any nation that farms out vital activities to other countries, and doesn't wish to realize the full implications of those risks. And I have stated that the CEOs and the college presidents and the pundits who go on talk shows and insist that our children need to major in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields have an equal obligation to point out where they think the jobs will come from.

No guarantees, there never are any - but then I am not the one being certain, am I? I'm not the one telling the audience that we need x number of people to go into these fields in order to remain competitive, when the vast majority of these jobs have been lost solely on the basis of price. After all, it costs the CEO nothing if 5,000 young people major in EE because he's talking it up, then end up working at Starbucks. (In fact, he has a perverse reason for doing just that, in that the higher supply will lower the price of whatever engineers he does need to hire in this country.)

So we can pick through the specifics of one case, trust that the system has worked to expose one man's flaws and put him in the position he "deserves," without regard to what he has achieved. We can assume that the 50-year-old guy working at Best Buy is there, not because of rampant age discrimination, but because of some character defect that somehow went undetected in the 25 years he spent earning patents and missing school plays for the good of his company.

But, in the end, we're left to square the conflicting messages. We can't have it both ways: we can't cast out the Karl Buschmann's and all the others with varying amounts of oddness, then insist that our future will be built on an ever-increasing supply of people with those same credentials (unless we assume that our educational system is somehow optimzed to cast out that oddness). My complaint is not with reality, things are what things are. It's with those who insist the system works properly because they're too myopic to admit that luck or fate has just as much to do with picking the winners and losers. And, while I don't ask for guaranteed outcomes, I do ask that the people who are given a forum, those who might just possibly influence behavior, not lie to us about the truth of the matter.

Structure or cycle?

Robert Reich, as he often does, expresses what many of us are thinking in succinct form. In a Wednesday post, he takes our current problems and contrasts the cyclic view to the structural view. Unless we understand from which camp someone is coming, we can't really ascertain what they're saying.

Reich summarizes the two thusly:
The emerging debate over Wall Street's and the Big Three's ongoing obligations to reform themselves is but one part of a much larger national debate we'll be entering upon in 2009 and beyond -- whether the economic crisis we're experiencing is basically cyclical (in which case, nothing really needs to change over the long term, after the economy gets back on track) or structural (in which case, many aspects of our economy and society will needs to change permanently).
If we listen to a lot of the power brokers and the pundits, it is clear that they believe that all that is happening is essentially cyclic, that we're going to tweak the economy through massive outlays of cash (either from the printing press or from our foreign friends) and, following some tough times, it will be back to business as usual. Home prices will rebound to their bubble prices, then go on beyond, everybody will be gainfully employed in jobs of their training and choosing, and we will go on as the dominant power, military and economic, in the history of the world. As Reich points out, this is the view of the Wall Street tycoons and the auto company executives, that, if the public can just get them over the hump, it will be business as usual and the good times will roll again.

And I am not such a pessimist that I wouldn't like all that to be true, but...

I think it's obvious to a lot of people, regular people who have to live their lives and make decisions and set priorities, that more fundamental changes have to occur, that mistakes have been made in the way this nation does things, and that it's time to fix them. And Peggy Noonan notwithstanding, I believe a large number of those Americans have a pretty clear view (and express it in letters to the editor and on blogs) of what they see as wrong and what they'd like fixed.

And they've elected one of the most unlikely Presidents ever in hopes that he will begin this process. They don't feel comfortable with the bailouts because those perpetuate the more-of-the-same mentality that they know is wrong. They're the ones who think about free trade, and listen to all the economists telling them that it's always beneficial, then look around at their dying town, and they wonder. They question how they're going to pay the massively-increasing tuition bills for their kids, while they take on ever more risk and their pay is flat. And on and on.

It's all too clear that there are things that are wrong, that there is a mismatch between the dream that is thrown around and the potential reality set. I'm not going to say that the problem lies 100% in the fabric of our society; people have some responsibility to look at that reality and understand that there are no guarantees, that there are no lottery tickets for life.

On the other hand, there are a lot of institutions insisting that people can have it all, that every boy (and girl) can be President, that success will be yours if you go to the right schools and work hard in the right jobs. We're learning that's just not true, and it probably never was, at least not totally.

But it seemed, not so long ago, that we were making progress toward extending those ideas to greater numbers of people. It's an amazing country in many ways, in that in our recent history we've allowed minorities and women to feel that they don't have to be locked into society's roles. They could feel that the American Dream, both materially and spiritually, applied to them as well.

Now, so many things point to a backsliding, a curtailment of that hope for so many. We live in a country that still seems to offer so much, yet it can't get decent health care to a large number of its citizens. We accept the tacit assumption that, somehow, executives are the ones who need protection from the greedy workers who actually make the products from which those nabobs derive their wealth. Productivity, that fabled economic measure, continues to rise, but the fruits of it are shared by fewer and fewer.

People don't see these trends as cyclic, because they've been building for decades, through Republican and Democratic governments, in good times and bad. They don't want the cycle to rotate around again, because more of the same isn't all that great for them. They're running faster and faster, and still falling behind, and they believe that it's a hallmark of the system, not a blip. And they're not seeing any of the fixes that have been proposed so far as doing anything other than perpetuating that system - it's past time for a change.

Someday we'll all be contingent

At the risk of starting a self-referential loop that will bring down the entire Internet, I'm going to take the chance of linking to a Citizen Carrie post from Monday that refers to a post of mine. Without going into the substance of mine again (I have one coming on that), I urge you to read hers for a different slant on the employment picture. There are actually two or three threads here, but I start with a quote:
I hope that no one in this country is still thinking that income for typical workers will continue to rise throughout their careers. It's more realistic to live on a total austerity budget during your peak earning years so you'll have enough money saved away to get you through your remaining forty or fifty years. The big gamble, and I wish we all had crystal balls, is trying to figure out if paying for expensive continuing education will be worth it given the fact that you could be starting your downward salary trajectory at any given time. (For example, is it worth it for 35-year old engineers to get MBA's?)
When I worked at a well-known research institution, I saw a graph of average salaries for their engineers. It rose quite quickly over the first ten years, then flattened out, which was explained to me as a combination of two factors: there tends to be a lot of learning in that time, whether in-company (and it had enviable training at that time) or through the accretion of additional degrees; and there was a desire to cement in those workers, to get their salaries high enough by the age of 30-35 that they wouldn't want to leave. We're not talking about the Dark Ages here, this was less than 20 years ago, but I'm guessing that neither of those factors carries much weight now, and that the curve would be far less smooth.

The point is, if you continued to get education, you saw an immediate boost in your compensation, at least up to a certain age. It probably wasn't a perfect system in that it offered very little incentive for a 45-year-old to go out and get another degree, but chances were the company preferred that, because that worker was already in the position (with 20 years experience) where he or she was "most needed."

The world has certainly changed, and a lot more of this has been pushed back on the worker. Carrie's question as to the worth of the MBA at a certain point in life is not one that people had to answer before. If you were an engineer but wanted to pursue management, of course you got that MBA. Otherwise, you received additional training in engineering to keep your skills sharp. Now, you have to calculate at every turn what your opportunities are today, might be five years from now, ten years from now, and so forth, then try to make a cost-effective decision (taking into consideration all the relevant tradeoffs). Some people probably find that exciting, but it just doesn't feel like the way to run a reasonably stable society.

Carrie then changes gears a little and contemplates the possibility that, given the reluctance of more and more companies to offer health insurance (particularly those small businesses that Republicans get so rhapsodic over), perhaps we would be better served by a combination of part-time jobs. Personally, I find that idea pretty monstrous, but, anyway, Carrie goes through the implications. To me, this conjures up visions of this vast nomadic, contingent workforce, serving at the whim of whatever corporate master happens to own the company this week. The societal implications seem huge, but it is late and I do not wish to think about this anymore tonight.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A visitor for the holiday

No, not Santa.  However, the gifts have been opened, the food eaten, the sugar plums nestled, and my 24 hours away from the computer are over.  So, back, and ready for action.

And I received a comment on my post centering on the Chicago Tribune story about Karl Buschmann and his employment woes.  Leaving aside the content of the comment for now (not because I have any issue with it, simply because it doesn't fit with this post), I'm excited to say it came from Ron May.

Now, of course, I value anyone who leaves a comment; I'm thrilled that people are reading and, perhaps to some extent, enjoying, but Ron May is kind of special.  To those of you not in Chicago, or not in the tech scene, you probably don't know who that is.  But if you're a sentient Chicago tech person, you must know him, if only through the Ron May Report (I've linked to the About page so you can get some flavor of what it's all about).

The Report is difficult to summarize exactly, just as Ron May himself is.  I have a picture of Mr. May that I've developed from his writing and some people who have encountered him (I have never met him myself), and I gather that a first impression of him for a lot of folks is "eccentric."  As I understand it, Mr. May goes to various events of a technical nature in and around Chicago, whether invited or not, and talks to people and experiences the events and comes home and writes this sprawling report on what is going on.  And he's been doing this for years, all through the late '90s tech boom, into the bust, and he's still going today (whatever you call this period we're in).  He focuses mainly on the entrepreneurs and angels, the venture capital firms and the start-ups, but he has written on some of the larger mainline firms (those that are still here, that is).

About the closest I can come to giving you the flavor of the May Report is to tell you that it's a pre-blog, something that existed in the dark days before blogging but has some of the same flavor.  The distinction is, of course, that Mr. May is doing primary reporting, that he's out talking to the people, going to the events, figuring out what's going on and conveying it to his readers.  If you have seen the pallid excuse for tech reporting that we tend to have in Chicago, you would understand that Ron May is really the only person living up to the ideals of journalism in this field in this place.

Now there is an element of gossip in some of the stories in the Report, and there is always the possibility that a correspondent or tipster might have an ax to grind, so one could criticize the Report for not meeting the standards of a "real" news source.  However, when you look at some of the monstrous reporting that is being done at some of our "major" news outlets (see Dean Baker or Brad DeLong for examples), you realize that having an ethics policy is no guarantee of accuracy.

I think there will be theses written in the future on the rise and fall of technology in Chicago, and the names Filipowski and Bernard will figure prominently (if not always admirably).  Any student who wants to get at the heart of what went on during this period had better move beyond the morgues of the Tribune and the Sun-Times if there is any desire to capture what really happened and how it felt, and the primary source would have to be The May Report.  I don't know if such things and people exist in other cities, but it would be nice to think that someone is putting forth that kind of effort to chronicle these interesting times.  At least we have Ron May, and I welcome him here (even if he never returns).

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A joyous time for all

I know that there may be readers who celebrate other holidays at this time of year, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, even Saturnalia (we always suspected that this was the big one for our Latin teacher), but I was raised in the faith I have, so Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are the big ones for me. While the youthful excitement may have faded, there is still a quiet satisfaction at the peace that comes over most of us at this time of the year.

Our family tradition was always to go to some relative's on Christmas Eve, then to stay at home Christmas morning and spend that as a family. That's how it was for me growing up, and it is, now that my mother's gone, no longer the case; now it's dinner on Christmas Eve, and that pretty much wraps it up. But it is still a time of internal quietude, a chance to catch the breath.

So I won't rile things up by talking today about the decline of newspapers, or the possibility that Obama will recreate our Iraq mistake in Afghanistan, or the obtuseness of commenters, or anything about the financial mess.

No, I will hope that each of you out there is spending time with loved ones, even if they aren't all with you. I will hope that you take the time to remember those who will never be with you. I will hope that you are feeling the spirit of sharing, even if there is less to share this year. I will hope that you are wrapped in love and laughter; if not, at least warmth and contentment.

And, now, I bid all of you great joy and good tidings, and wish you all a very Merry Christmas.

More on Twitter

Kevin Drum follows up his earlier post on Twitter (which I referred to here) with a cautionary tale about one Twitterer who has, apparently, become lost in the steam tunnels. He then goes on to talk about his own early experience (though he doesn't summarize the comments from his last post where he asked for suggestions on how Twitter can be used, some of which were enlightening to me).

He concludes, correctly I think, that Twitter is similar to Facebook in that "it doesn't really make too much sense unless you spend a lot of time with it." And that's right, they are so profoundly different in form of interaction that there is a critical mass that a user needs to get to. I haven't, which is probably why I don't recognize how central they've become to people's lives. (The same is true of any somewhat-deep-but-different user experience. For example, if all you know of Flight Simulator is, you take off, then run the plane into the Sears Tower, you know very little compared to the person who can actually land the plane.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A new world view

Readers, I've had a revelation, perhaps due to the holidays, perhaps just good common sense finally creeping into my brain. After years of thinking a certain way, I've decided I need to look at things differently, and I feel good about that. Let me share.

I'm no longer going to look at the world around me and see whether the system we have is bringing about favorable outcomes. Nope, it's all about me now. If I'm doing well, then I don't really want to hear about how others aren't doing well; I'll just call them losers and crybabies and wave them away as full of anger, and I can dismiss any anger as beneath my notice.

After all, if someone like me can do well, command a contract job at an important company, then anyone should be able to, right? If they can't, well then, too bad. But what I'll also do is feign indifference to my personal outcome, because that makes me look superior, above it all, which of course I am. I was proud and happy when I delivered pizza a few years ago, and I'll be proud and happy when I have to do it again (at least that's what I'll say...). Not for me the loser stance of complaining or whining when management decides to send my job overseas; those folks deserve it, and more power to them. Now, did you have the cheesy bread?

This Internet thing is tailor-made for me, because now I can enlighten all sorts of people about my views, let them have a glimpse of my superiority. I won't waste my time actually reading the posts on which I comment, that would indicate that I think "those people's" posts are worth reading. No, I'll just pretend to read them, create a post in my head that is probably what they would have written, then I'll make my comments.

For example, if I read a post like this one, in which some bozo contends that there might be some problem with a system that doesn't put experienced people to work at something close to their proven potential, I'll just do my usual assertion that pizza delivery is a noble profession, then say that credentials don't guarantee outcomes. That the original post didn't say they should will be of no consequence to me; again, I wouldn't sully myself by actually reading it.

You see, expertise is meaningless, it's all about hustling to make that buck, in whatever way possible. If I were to lose my professional job, it wouldn't represent a loss to society if I was schlepping boxes around a warehouse. Oh, I've proven I can do more, but hey, the market tells me I'm worth minimum wage, who am I to disagree? Only hopeless losers would see this as a waste.

You may ask, since you're so busy giving advice to the great unenlightened out there, what would you tell the children? I should think that's obvious by this time.

Kids, stuff just happens, and you gotta ride that tide, go with the flow. Sometimes someone will look at you, see how great you are, and anoint you as...a pizza delivery guy. Reach for the stars, kids, and you can get sub-minimum wage plus tips. An education, credentials, experience: those are for people who believe that they should matter, that a system which takes people at 54, or 50, or 45, and tosses them on the ashheap is just fine. Don't waste your time with all that. Also, never actually engage in a discussion with anyone, it's far more fun not to listen to their squawking and to repeat the same things again and again. Oh, and if you have a chance, belittle them whenever possible, that will really prove just how superior you are, because there's nothing that brings people around faster than when the pizza delivery guy shares with you his philosophy of life.

So, readers, I hope you like the change in attitude I'm bringing. Don't expect me to show concern about our poor school systems - after all, if the kids don't like their school, they're free to move somewhere else, so they should quit whining. The economy? Nope, I don't see any problems with it, because I'm doing just fine, thank you.

But, you know, even if you don't like it, I don't care, because I'm just going to keep repeating the same things over and over. Perhaps one day you too will become enlightened and realize just how special I am.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Wonder how much Karl's giving to the Alumni Fund this year?

The Chicago Tribune has a rather perky story today about one Karl Buschmann. It takes only a few minutes looking around the Internet to get a picture of successful businessman Buschmann: in 2000, he was featured in the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business (hey, that's Booth now) as a marketing manager; just two years ago, he was named executive director of the Japan America Society of Chicago, and he was also founder and chairman of the business school's International Roundtable. Here's a guy who did the right things, got the MBA in 1985, parlayed that into the kind of connections and ties that should have ensured his success.

And yet, Buschmann has been out of work for a year and a half. Well, not quite out of work - he now cleans toilets at a clothing store. The Tribune article is titled, "Former execs prove well-suited to 'survival' jobs," a fairly sprightly title for what should be seen as a cautionary tale and a catastrophe (I've reprinted the article in full below, because I'm still not sure how the Tribune handles old articles).

This is actually a pretty strange article, with bizarre shifts in tone and content. To summarize:
  • Buschmann's good at selling menswear, because he has a great resume
  • He has to do whatever he can because he needs to work, even sweeping the floor and cleaning the toilets
  • But he seems happy that he's good at his job
  • You can follow the rules, achieve a great deal, and still move downward
  • But it should be good for retailers because they can pay minimum wage to seasonal workers who are really good with their MBAs and experience
  • But they aren't hiring anyone anyway
  • So even the minimal advantage that a Buschmann would bring to retailing, what with his work ethic and all, isn't helping people like him
  • Even with a great background, then, you can't find work in what you're trained to do, and you can't find work in a lesser field that might be able to use your talents
  • So Buschmann also works in a warehouse lugging heavy boxes, even though he's 54, but maybe that's OK because he's a triathlete
  • And his business experience implies that he understands the needs of suit-buying executives
I can't tell whether this article thinks Buschmann's situation is good or bad, so let me help.

This is bad, really bad. It's certainly bad for Karl Buschmann, who did all the right things, got the right degrees, joined the right professional organizations, got his name out there. But maybe you're an old-line Reaganomics type, and you say, "Well, that's just the way it goes, creative destruction and all that."

But can we really afford to take someone who has many productive years ahead of him and throw him, and so many others, on the scrapheap? Let's forget the plight of Buschmann for a minute, and think about what this implies.

First, here's someone who has proven talents and abilities, at a time when this country needs such people, and the best we can find for him to do is to sweep floors. We've got wetbrains paying themselves millions while their companies go down the tubes, and we think it's just part of the economic process that people like this man are cleaning toilets.

Second, what does this say to our young people? The mantra is, work hard, go to school, get that graduate degree, go into debt, do whatever the company asks you to do, and your reward will come. That's right, your reward will be to schlep heavy crates around a cold warehouse at the age of 54, and you better keep yourself in triathlon shape just in case.

Third, expect the media, on the rare occasions when they notice you at all, to write incoherent stories with cutesy headlines about this problem - my guess is the stories won't be quite so breezy when there are huge numbers of journalists who are toting that barge and lifting that bale.

Karl Buschmann has sold menswear for only a month now, but, it turns out, he's pretty good at it.

Maybe it's his years of international business experience.

Or his graduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis.

Or his University of Chicago MBA, Class of 1985.

Or the fact that he really, really needs this gig as a part-time sales clerk.

After a year and a half without full-time employment, the 54-year-old Schaumburg resident is resigned to doing whatever he must.

If that means sweeping the floor and cleaning the toilet at a clothing store, so be it.

"You just check your ego. It's what you've got to do," he said. "I'm good at my job."

As the recession turns ever uglier, job seekers are lowering their expectations, and employers are seeing applications from some of the most highly qualified candidates in memory.

With top companies cutting positions by the thousands, a stellar resume and strong work ethic are no guarantee against downward mobility.

"When they said, 'Go to college, go to work and, once you're qualified, the system takes care of you,' it doesn't anymore," said Brian Healy, a ministry leader at the Holy Family Job Support Group, where Buschmann is a member. "Unemployment is very bad and getting worse."

The educated, white-collar workers lining up for unemployment checks have come in handy for retailers who typically staff up during the holidays. All else being equal, that high quality should translate into better service, said Neil Stern, a senior partner with Chicago retail consultancy McMillan/Doolittle.

Yet, this is the first year in "a long, long time" that holiday hiring is down, he noted. With the recession squeezing merchants across the board, sales staffs in many cases are leaner than ever.

After decades of dwindling retail service, customers expect less. Forget about knowledgeable, friendly help. If stores have their products readily available and make checkout a breeze, "That's good customer service today," Stern said.

A few merchants such as Nordstrom's, Container Store and Trader Joe's pay more to maintain higher standards. But for most, especially with the economy flagging, "It's about cutting, trying to run as lean and minimally as possible," he said. "Survival may hinge on how fast and deep you can cut."

That approach obviously does no favors for Buschmann, who also works part time in a warehouse hauling heavy packages to qualify for the company's unusually good benefits, though it's a tough workout even for a perennial triathlete.

"I'm working a couple of survival jobs to earn a few shekels and obtain medical insurance," he said.

It's a far cry from his days of business travel to China and Germany, working in the software and consumer-electronics industries.

At least he can relate to the executives who buy suits from him. And his experience overseas comes in handy when the customers occasionally hail from Europe, Asia or Africa.

Buschmann's extended job search also has taught him he's not alone. Plenty of fellow fiftysomethings are looking for high-level corporate jobs too.

"There's more people in the pool now," he said. "We're out there in the marketplace in spades." (Greg Burns)

Sounds like we've got that nailed down

A couple of posts (here and here) from Adam Levitin on the auto company bailout. Obviously, I'm no expert in this branch of the law, but it's pretty frightening to realize, first, that the government (that's us) has very little hope of reclaiming these supposedly safe investments if things get worse, and second, that the "experts" in and around Capitol Hill don't know this.

We've heard again and again that, in all these many schemes, whether it be buying up troubled assets (now dropped) or "investing" in financial companies, we would have an excellent chance of making all the money back (and more!) when things turned around. It's becoming increasingly obvious that no one really knows that, that it's just more spin to get public support behind these things. What we are seeing for sure is that the big boys in the corner offices are still getting theirs, the workers who actually put cars together are demonized as we kill them to save a corporate brand, and contractors are licking their chops at the thought of pulling down some really big coin.

Joe Biden's got his work cut out for him.

Review - No Blood, No Foul

Charley Rosen is a somewhat unclassifiable character who's been around basketball as a player, coach, writer, commentator (currently for for years, perhaps best known for his connection to Bulls/Lakers coach Phil Jackson. A lot of his writing, fiction and non-, concerns the early days of the National Basketball Assocation (originally called the BAA) and the point-shaving scandals of the early 1950s in college basketball. This is not so surprising; as far as I can tell, Rosen was born in 1941, so the birth of the NBA and the difficult times for the college game would have occurred around the time he was becoming aware of basketball.

No Blood, No Foul (2008) is a novel about Jason Lewis, a young basketball star who goes off to World War II and loses a couple of fingers. He returns from the battlefield, is unable to play at his previous level, and becomes, almost accidentally, a referee. At the same time, he is dealing with the trauma of being a returning veteran, as well as a new marriage.

On the plus side, the book is quite evocative of its time. Rosen has a good memory for detail, and he expresses it here in fully-realized descriptions of what New York was like in the 1940s. Also, the character of Jason Lewis is affecting; you'll care about what happens to him, watch his struggles as he tries to refind his place in a world that has not turned out to be what he expected.

On the neutral side, there is not a lot about basketball. There are occasional descriptions of the action, but less than you would expect from an author of Rosen's background. Whether that's a plus or minus for you depends on whether you're reading this as a sports book or a coming-into-adulthood story (personally, I would have liked a bit more detailing of how the game was played 60 years ago).

On the negative side, the other characters are more types than people (granted, that may be how Jason sees them), and the ending is so foreshadowed and truncated that you might wonder if Rosen hit his page limit and had to send in the manuscript. It's not a deep novel in any sense, so the reader looking for deep psychological insights will end up disappointed.

Overall, this is a fairly minor work. It has its emotional moments, but not enough of them to be truly engaging. There are no real fresh insights into the nature of sports, or the role it has played in our society, but, taken as a look back to a time and a place that exist no longer, No Blood, No Foul is a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Review - A TV Guide to Life

Quite a few people found their way to the Internet site, Television Without Pity, in the early days of the Web. It was a fun look at many television shows, becoming known for its recaps and articles, each of which came laden with heavy doses of snark (a word that they may well have the credit for spreading the widest).

It was bought in early 2007 by a unit of NBC, and, after a year (which some theorize was contractual), the founders left (along with the great recapper Miss Alli). For those of us who enjoyed it, there isn't quite the same spark to it. There are still good reasons to go, but, for me at least, it's no longer a must-visit.

One of the pleasures still to be found (and there is still some very sharp writing) is Jeff Alexander, alias M. Giant. Alexander has taken his insight and put it between the covers of A TV Guide to Life: How I Learned Everything I Needed to Know from Watching Television (2008). And the book is a really fun read, a very pleasant diversion. You won't get the insights of a McLuhan or a Postman here; you will get an affectionate but realistic look at some of the conventions of television (though there is less snark than I might have expected).

There's not really a lot of analysis to be done in this review. Alexander illustrates some of the "peculiarities" of television plotting, exposing their conventions in a humorous way. I won't spoil it for you, but I will give one example that made me laugh out loud. In a discussion of the oft-noted TV phenomenon of "hot sitcom wives...[with] tubby, schlubby husbands," he gives us:
Meanwhile, over on the one-hour-drama beat, Dennis Franz was working his way inexorably up the NYPD Blue hotness ladder like some kind of romance-oriented version of Richard III.
One very good choice that Alexander makes is that he doesn't drive the "I learned about life from TV" meme into the ground. While it is very funny when he contrasts the reality of his school experience to what he had expected based on Little House on the Prairie, a little of that "I thought this because of television, but life was different" goes a long way. Fortunately, he settles into a look at various genres and situations without interjecting himself into the discussion too much.

You'll get the most out of this book if you've seen the shows Alexander writes about, of course, but, sadly, most of us have watched enough TV to enjoy this book thoroughly. You may wonder why you watched some of the shows you did, you may finally getting around to questioning just how realistic Good Times really was, and you'll have a good time reading the book.

The friendship of blogging

I wrote yesterday about the different ways one has to read different blogs, how one has to evaluate a blog post by Andrew Sullivan (from whom I copped this title) differently from mine because he has other outlets for his writing. I also said that I didn't think blogging was as significant as some people think, not yet.

But I got to thinking about that, and I hearkened back to a Sullivan post from early in the month where he quoted a reader on the death of the blogger Tanta of Calculated Risk:
[I]t was so much more than just knowing of someone passing; it was indeed like losing a friend, and the feeling surprised me. I didn't even know what she looked like, and yet I felt a bound with her through her interactive writing.
We're taught as youngsters that looks don't matter, that beauty is only skin deep, then we receive thousands upon thousands of messages telling us just the opposite.

Perhaps this is the biggest benefit of communication through the Internet, that we can apprehend someone's ideas without preconceptions of visual appearance. We can at least get closer to the ideal of understanding people through the quality of their thought.

Of course, not every trend is heading this way. The Chicago Tribune has taken to printing pictures next to the letters in the Voice of the People area, perhaps in an attempt to personalize the writers. Only proves to me that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Twit-erific? Twit-ilicious? Twit-pendous?

Adjectival forms aside, I have often wondered what Kevin Drum is wondering today, what's the deal with Twitter? I know people who use it regularly, but I've never quite gotten the attraction of 140-character messages. Yes, I could ask the people who use it, but I might seem dangerously out of touch. So I'm happy to have Kevin ask the question of his larger readership, and the first few comments are interesting, at least in terms of the kind of communities being built on top of it. I'm still not certain we should be entirely comfortable with the sound bite nature of it, but at least I'm beginning to think there's something there.

The depth of blogging

A lot has been written on the significance of blogging; my stance has been, so far, that blogging is not as significant as some people would like to think it is. Sure, I'd like to think that I'm changing minds and hearts through the power of my thinking and the eloquence of my prose, even if it's only in a "contributing to the global consciousness" sort of way. We all want to believe that anything on which we spend a great deal of time is important, but, just as, after you're gone, your kids will throw out that end table you lovingly fashioned, the vast majority of the words we write are vanishing into the ether as fast as we can churn them out.

There are a few blogs that have become more mainstream, that seem important because they get thousands of hits and hundreds of comments a day, that appear to be little media outlets all on their own. Many of them have affiliations with existing publications or organizations, like Kevin Drum at Mother Jones or the vast stable of Atlantic Monthly bloggers (I'm not sure what they're doing there, but they have stockpiled some kind of talent - Sullivan, Douthat, Coates, McArdle, Fallows, and more). There have been several graphical depictions of the blogosphere (unfortunately, I can't find one now when I need it), and they generally show these as segmented clusters, with a big political clump, and one for sports, and another for cooking, and so on. All the well-known names in each category are in the clumps, and the rest of us just isolated off in space.

What would be even more interesting is for the graphmakers to show directionality, demonstrating how much more likely it is for me to link to Sullivan than for Sullivan to link to me (as an aside, the effect of a "wrong-way" link is remarkable; Eric Zorn linked to me a few weeks ago, and my readership shot up for a few days - apparently, I don't have a lot of staying power, as the numbers bounced back down). We would see just how much mindshare some blogs have, and I think we would find that, in whichever cluster we choose, there is a gravitational tendency. Some blogs will remain popular no matter what they do, and new voices will have a hard time breaking in, unless they're institutionally supported in some way (anyone The Atlantic puts up is going to get big numbers).

This all puts pay to the idea that the Internet will support thousands of distinct voices. Instead, we're seeing some blogs become virtually canonical, others not so much. This clustering is, of course, what you'd expect. After all, there's only so much time in the day; my feed reader is easily filled by the 54 feeds I get now (and many of these are dead, near-dead, or once-a-day posters). Just to keep up with Sullivan, Yglesias, and Drum is more than I can handle some days. I'm not out scouting around for more reading material. With everything I have to do, it takes a lot to convince me to follow anyone else.

Which brings me to another form of segmentation. Many of the more popular bloggers are real writers, that is, they're paid for it. So they tend to put their dashed-off stuff on the Web, reserving the longer or harder pieces for some form of (paid-for) print medium. For me, on the other hand, this is it. I have no other outlet for my writing, so some of my pieces are long and filled with every thought I've ever had on the subject. If I want to express something, I do it here; the pros may wave their hands on the blog while reserving the deep stuff for the cents-by-the-word articles.

And I sometimes forget that. What I was originally going to write was a critical post about Matt Yglesias, who has recently published posts about jobs and transportation that I found facile and simplistic. He is one of those who writes blithely that we need to help the people instead of the companies, then offers up little more than extended unemployment benefits and worker retraining as solutions. He writes, as he often does, about congestion pricing for our roads and parking (as he did here), talks about setting fares and fees intelligently, but gives no details as to how we might actually accomplish this. (He also spoke here a bit too casually about the relationship between free parking and business vitality; there's a big cause-and-effect problem in what he's writing here.)

But then he writes an excellent post yesterday on education. In it, he talks about all the things we could do that we absolutely know would make our schools better (prompted by a trip he just took to Finland, a place where they pretty much do all those things). And he writes, in conclusion:

But even though I don’t think anyone would really dispute any of that, we don’t just do that stuff. Instead, we’re trapped in a frustrating circle of passive acceptance of the idea that we just have to live in a country where public services are ill-funded and poorly delivered. And it’s not just that conservatives block reforms — progressives have let their horizons slip incredibly low. A country that once built transcontinental railroads and sent people to the moon has decided that for some reason it’d just be impossible to solve our current social problems. And when you point out to people that there are countries where the political system has taken decisive action to tackle these challenges, people kind of shrug and observe that the United States is very big. Which is true. But the country was also big years ago when we were building the world’s first mass literacy society. Indeed, it used to be considered advantageous to the United States that we were so big and people used to wonder whether small countries weren’t just inherently stuck in poverty.

The truth of the matter, however, isn’t that our problems couldn’t be solved it’s that we’re not seriously trying. And we’ve developed a political culture in which that’s considered okay.

And this is dead on the mark, and confounding, and frustrating, and I realize that Yglesias probably does have a good handle on the issues he discusses (even when I don't agree with him). But it is likely the form of blogging prevents him from pursuing the larger implications of what he writes, sometimes.

So, now, because the market for journalistic writing has become fragmented, I have to figure out the motivation of the writer before I comment. If Sullivan seems to just glide through a particular post, it may not be that his thinking is faulty or that he's missed something; it may just be that the really deep stuff is going to be in his next magazine article or next book.
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